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April 03, 2023 6 min read
In China, as well as Chinese homes and restaurants worldwide, kitchen knives are typically large and rectangular. Chinese “cleavers” range from ultra-thin slicers to thick bone choppers and are surprisingly versatile. Some of the best Chinese chef’s knives are made by Hong Kong-based Chan Chi Kee (陳枝記), and we’re delighted to be carrying them at Knifewear!
History and Reputation of Chan Chi Kee Knives
Chan Chi Kee (abbreviated as CCK) has been in business for over 100 years. The company is named after the now-deceased founder, but they continue to be owned and operated by the Chan family. They recently switched from an old-school, embossed stamp for the logo on the blade to a more futuristic laser etching process, but CCK still makes their knives in a time-honoured way.
These classic Chinese chef’s knives have always had an excellent reputation in Greater China and are becoming more well known in the West now, too. Chef Anthony Bourdain bought a CCK knife on an episode of his show ‘The Layover.’ A CCK cleaver was featured on Christopher Kimball’s ‘Milk Street,’ including demos on using it. And Chinese cuisine expert and cookbook author Fuschia Dunlop has been known to recommend the venerable CCK.
When I lived in Hong Kong, people told me that CCK stands out from other Chinese knife makers because of their steel forging methods. I’ve had a middleweight carbon steel cleaver from them for years and have found this claim to be true: it is extremely easy to sharpen and holds an edge well. But it also stains like crazy, so I’ve built up a lovely patina! Newer carbon steel models have a protective lacquer that helps mitigate staining and rust.
My well-loved CCK Civil and Military Knife.
Compared with other knives, a CCK will typically stay sharp longer than an average German or Chinese blade but not as long as most Japanese knives. They don’t specify the steel type or hardness, but I’d guess they’re around 57 to 59 HRC. The durability of Chan Chi Kee knives depends a lot on how thick they are, and they make cleavers for every purpose. That being said, they are all hard enough to stay sharp for long periods without being too brittle or prone to damage.
The barrel-shaped wooden handles on CCK cleavers have a very traditional look. The part of the knife that goes into the handle is the ‘tang,’ and it goes all the way through before being folded over at the end. This traditional construction method looks nicely rustic but is supremely practical. The handles are attached very securely but can still be replaced!
The numbers on the blade of CCK knives follow a Chinese ranking system of size relative to others in the same line. The bigger the number, the smaller the cleaver compared to the others in the same series. A #4 is the smallest and a #1 is usually the largest, but the biggest size is sometimes marked as XL. This numbering system is included in the model numbers, although not all series have all numbers. For example, the 130X series includes 1303, 1302, and 1301 from smallest to largest.
Here are some of the CCK Chinese Cleavers we have available at Knifewear:
In Cantonese, this extremely thin blade is referred to as a “song dou” (桑刀) by CCK, meaning ‘mulberry knife.’ Depending on who you ask, the name is because it’s as thin as a mulberry leaf, or because it can cut food into slices as thin as a mulberry leaf, or because it can be used to cut mulberry leaves into superfine threads as food for silkworms.
You can use this featherweight Chinese chef’s knife to cut all kinds of food, but only use it on things you can chew with your teeth. Chopping hard stuff like bones or frozen food would chip it. The mulberry knife is made from reactive carbon steel, which can rust if left wet and/or dirty. That being said, it has a food-safe lacquer on it that will gradually wear away with use and be replaced with a protective patina, which helps make it easier to maintain.
This lightweight cleaver is ever so slightly thicker than the 1303, and CCK calls it a “siu peen dou” (小片刀), meaning ‘small slicing knife.’ A slicing cleaver is a versatile Chinese chef’s knife good for meat, fish, fruit, veggies, cheese, etc. Just stay away from hard bones, shells, pits, and stems! The 1912 is made from stainless steel, so it won’t rust unless badly abused. This knife is a perfect introduction to the world of Chinese cleavers because it is affordable, easy to take care of, and relatively durable while still providing excellent cutting performance.
This knife has a unique shape that is designed for butchery but is actually quite versatile. In Cantonese, CCK calls it a “hoi touh dou” (開肚刀), meaning ‘stomach opening knife,’ because it is meant for gutting tasks. It has a nice taper along the spine that allows the back of the edge to be used for deboning poultry (joints, not bones) as well as slicing meat towards the upswept tip. The height of the blade makes it great for chopping veggies along the flat spot at the back, while the heavy curve at the front is amazing for rock chopping herbs, similar to a mezzaluna or an ulu. A majority of the carbon steel blade has a protective lacquer finish, which will wear away over time and be replaced with a patina. Just make sure to wash and dry it immediately after use or the edge could rust!
Knifewear’s most recent addition to our Chinese cleaver lineup is what CCK calls a “choi dou” (菜刀) in Cantonese, translating literally to ‘vegetable knife’ but meaning ‘food knife.’ This welterweight cleaver is what a lot of heritage users would be most familiar with as the sole blade in their parents’ or grandparents’ kitchen. Looking for one knife to rule them all? Look no further! It’s capable of slicing meat, chopping vegetables, and even cutting small poultry or fish bones. The stainless steel blade won’t rust easily, and it’s a bit smaller than some dual-purpose cleavers, which makes it manageable for all sizes of people.
There is a special spot in my heart for what CCK labels a “manh mouh dou” (文武刀) in Cantonese, literally meaning ‘civil and military knife.’ Almost a decade ago, my very first Chinese cleaver was a civil and military, and I still use it regularly! The name is a reference to a philosophical binary of yin and yang in Chinese thought that expresses opposites in the socio-political sphere. In the knife world, it earns that name by being able to handle both fine and rough jobs. This is a big knife. As a middleweight cleaver, it can do just about everything; it goes from fine mincing garlic to chopping up turkey carcasses with great aplomb. As a jack-of-all-trades but master-of-none, it’s easily the most versatile knife I own. CCK now puts a layer of lacquer on the blade to protect it from rust, but you’ll still need to keep it dry or risk rusting the edge. As the lacquer is worn down, the blade will stain and take on a lovely patina.
The Kau Kong chopper is a beast of a cleaver, and its name literally means ‘Nine Rivers knife,’ which CCK calls a “Gau Gong dou” (九江刀) in Cantonese. That name is thought to be a reference to a city in China whose borders are similar to the shape of the knife. The blade is front-weighted and heavy, but it actually tapers nicely from spine to edge and heel to tip. The back half of the blade is thick enough for chopping fish, poultry, and small pork bones, while the front half is still thin enough to chop meat and veggies. As a light-heavyweight cleaver, it’s super versatile. Nonetheless, the Kau Kong chopper is not ideal for delicate work because of its sheer weight. It’s made of full carbon steel with a lacquer finish. While not difficult to take care of, make sure to keep it dry to prevent rust.
As a Chinese cleaver enthusiast, I highly recommend adding one—or more!—of these knives to your collection. I have three CCK knives and am looking at getting a fourth. Happy chopping, folks!
Back in the day Colin cooked at a couple restaurants in Edmonton, and he used to make knives too. He later moved to Toronto and was seduced by a career in music, though he continued sharpening knives for friends and family. By night, he DJ'd and produced beats as Ronin E-Ville, and by day he taught music at several universities, all while training to become a kung fu master. Colin eventually moved to Ireland, working as a music researcher for a couple years and learning to make shillelaghs. Since returning to Canada, Colin is stoked to be getting back to his roots with knives, happily nerding-out on steels, blacksmiths, and sharpening. If you want to know about Chinese-style cleavers (chuka bocho), Colin’s your guy!
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